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Mach 20 military plane could fly by 2016


The U.S. Department of Defense wants a hypersonic aircraft in the skies in the next four years, an ambitious timeline for a technology that doesn’t fully exist yet. With a top speed of Mach 20, or about 13,000 mph, the rocket-powered plane could reach any part of the world in less than an hour. But so far, the longest hypersonic flight test has lasted just nine minutes. Researchers are focused on how to bring such an aircraft to bear, addressing concerns like heat tolerance, navigation and propulsion. One idea is to launch the so-called X-plane from a larger vehicle in low orbit, then give the plane its own set of rockets for added power. For much of the rest of the flight, it would glide back through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. At such high speeds, the whole aircraft would need to be able to withstand temperatures of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Officials haven’t publicly given the project a pricetag, though research has been ongoing for several years already.